Continuing from yesterday’s post, here’s the remainder of my Giovannino Guareschi biography. It begins with the part fans know best: home from the War, GG founds a weekly journal and creates his beloved Little World characters, all while helping set the course of Italian history.
Candido and Don Camillo
On returning home from the Nazi internment camp in 1945, Giovannino Guareschi set about regaining his strength and re-establishing his literary presence in Milan. His weekly paper, Bertoldo, had been a casualty of war, but the resourceful editor was able to reassemble many of the old crowd (which included some of the leading Italian journalists/humorists of the day) and begin a new paper, Candido. Like its predecessor, Candido would publish literary pieces, cartoons, and commentary; however, this being free, post-Fascist Italy, the new paper would differ from the old in being able to take on overtly political targets.
And there were many such targets, for the Italian political situation at the end of WWII was in something of a mess. The country may have formally withdrawn from the War upon the overthrow of Mussolini, but there had been no immediate peace: instead, the conflict against the Allies was simply replaced by intense civil strife. Even as the new government was establishing itself in Rome in 1943, the Nazis were setting up a puppet regime under the deposed “Il Duce” and his supporters in the North. Rival Resistance groups–including many composed of long-oppressed Communists and Socialists–arose to oppose the remnants of Italian Fascism, but the common goal of these groups did not exactly unite them. Indeed, in the post-War years they would compete to claim credit for Fascism’s eventual demise.
Among the important national questions to be settled at the War’s end was the fate of the Monarchy, and a referendum held in 1946 resulted in the transformation of the Kingdom of Italy into the Italian Republic. Guareschi and his paper had unsuccessfully supported the King, but there was no time for Candido‘s editor to retreat and lick his political wounds. In just two years, the new Republic would hold its first general elections, and the mustachio’d monarchist’s services as a propagandist were required by his second-choice party, the one he thought had the best chance of defeating the Communists and keeping Italy out of Stalin’s orbit. And, sure enough, in 1948, Alcide De Gasperi and the Christian Democrats did defeat the Communists in the national elections, with what was regarded as the indispensable assistance of Giovannino Guareschi. The writer’s weapons included cartoons, slogans, editorials, and … a book.
The book, entitled Mondo piccolo: Don Camillo, was actually a collection of pieces that had already appeared in one of Candido‘s most popular weekly features–a continuing series of humorous tales about the colorful parish priest of a quaint, Northern Italian Everyvillage who is forced to deal with the fact that his town’s newly-elected, post-war government is Communist. That “Don Camillo,” the feisty priest, always proves up to the challenge posed by his formidable foe, “Mayor Peppone,” is largely thanks to the guidance of the Christ on the altar cross, with whom the embattled cleric holds frequent, frank discussions (with the reader privy to both sides of the conversation!). The Don Camillo tales were fable-like, yet they reflected a very real situation; they wickedly satirized their Red target, yet they displayed a genuine tenderness on the part of the author toward all of his characters. And, collected in book form, they made for an almost instant international bestseller.
That he became an overnight popular sensation obviously had a huge effect on Guareschi’s life, but it did not really change him: that is, he went on being Italy’s self-appointed political gadfly, using the pages of Candido both to fight Communism and to criticize “his” party (the Christian Democrats) when he felt it did not lead responsibly (and this was in an era when criticizing government figures–even if the criticism was well-founded–could be illegal). But even as their creator provoked and sometimes outright alienated establishment figures on both the Left and the Right, Don Camillo and Peppone continued to delight their fans (who ranged from peasants to Popes), both in print and on the big screen (in a series of films with Fernandel and Gino Cervi as the beloved priest and mayor).
Of course, Guareschi wrote on non-political topics, as well, and he was particularly successful with another continuing series of humorous newspaper essays (also periodically collected into books), this one depicting the joys and trials of family life in the new Italy. The family in question was his own–or, rather, a stylized version of it, with himself as bemused paterfamilias, his wife as scatterbrained but wise earth mother, and his precocious children in the role of … well, precocious children (Americans, think Dave Barry or Calvin Trillen or even “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies”). As in the case of the Don Camillo stories, there’s just the right combination of laughter and life lesson in the delightful family pieces. Indeed, they’d have made a great basis for a TV sitcom.
Roncole, Prison, and the End
In the early 1950’s, Guareschi decided to move his family to the country–to the village of Roncole Verdi, where the multi-talented author had a new family home built according to his own design. The move, though it was intended to get him out of the big city, did not signify a retreat from the public arena on Guareschi’s part: he included in the home’s plan a private apartment/office for himself so that he could do serious work on Candido there.
And in 1954 the journalist found himself very much in the public eye on account of Candido. Specifically, he ended up on the wrong side of a libel suit after he published in the paper what he believed were two shocking wartime letters between then-Resistance-leader Alcide De Gasperi (yes, the same Christian Democratic Prime Minister GG helped get elected in 1948) and the British command. In one missive, De Gasperi allegedly encouraged the Allies to bomb the city of Rome in order to demoralize German collaborators and bring a swifter end to the war. Of course, De Gasperi denied authorship, and a court agreed with him. Convinced of his source, however, Guareschi would not recant… and, as this was his second run-in with the courts in as many years (in 1952 he’d published a cartoon mocking the Italian president–a crime in those days–and earned a suspended sentence), a prison sentence was mandated.
Guareschi would later complain that his 14-month stint in jail in Parma was, in some ways, worse than his time in the German Lager. The days were filled with meaningless activity, he said, and in the beginning he was not allowed to write. When he did get pen and paper, he made good use of the time, penning among other things the screenplay for the third Don Camillo film. He was released early for good behavior.
Demoralized by his experience, GG was also experiencing health problems (some traceable all the way back to those two years in the German Lager). In 1956 he began spending several months a year in Switzerland for his constitution; then in 1957 he stepped down as editor of Candido. A retirement? Not at all: Guareschi continued as a contributor to Candido, and he also undertook a non-literary enterprise, purchasing a cafe in Roncole and running it himself.
The early ’60’s, however, did see a dramatic slow-down in Guareschi’s activity. In 1961, the company that had published Candido for 15 years bowed to external political pressure from the Left and dropped the paper. This was a severe blow to GG, and then in 1962 he suffered a heart attack. Recovery took some time. Down but not out, the embattled journalist expanded his other business, adding a restaurant onto his cafe in 1964. He also continued to write, of course, but much of his later work was tinged with melancholy. The new Italy, he feared, was not shaping up all that well. Even as the Red menace abated in the post-Stalin years, so the twin spectres of Modernism and Affluence (the latter with its attendant Complacency) arose as a challenge to the kind of society hoped for by some in those heady days right after the War.
To the regret of fans both at home and abroad, Giovannino Guareschi’s distinctive voice was silenced by a fatal heart attack in the summer of 1968. He was only 60 years old, and the prime of his career had lasted just 20 years. His popularity and influence, however, have lasted much longer.